March 6, 2018

Thought Provoker-Riley Johndonnell


When I first laid my eyes on an issue of Surface Magazine, I was blown away by the innovation, the graphic design, the photography, the styling and the content in general. I only wished I could be a part of such a project. I sent the magazine a promo card (this was when I had just opened my studio) and didn’t let myself even hope. I was thrilled when I heard back from them, not only from them, but from one of the publishers, Riley Johndonnell. Turns out Riley was not just a co- publisher, but founder, creative director, designer, editor, stylist, writer, publicist. There was nothing that he didn’t do. During my first meeting with him, he explained why he responded to the images that I sent him, images which later got into the coveted CA photo annual. Coming from years of studying art at RISD and Chicago Art Institute and growing up with my Creative Director father, I was used to hearing creative commentary, but Riley was different. The things that came out of his mouth seemed new, exciting and ahead of his time. I was hooked. I needed to work with such a creative no matter what. I snapped up every assignment that Riley threw at me, I jumped at the chance to be on staff at the magazine, to get a view of how they created content and how they promoted the magazine. From the beginning, the magazine was aligning itself with high end brands and causes. They threw the most dazzling events that promoted not only the magazine and the brands that supported it, but the causes they cared about. All the while having a blast and working insanely hard 24/7. 

One of the causes that Riley felt strongly about was supporting up and coming talent. He launched a yearly issue entitled “The Avant-Gaurdian” showcasing edgy new talent and had launch parties in major cities where big brands could align themselves with the visual “elite”. It drew attention from major fashion brands and launched the careers for a number of those photographers. As much as he gave to the magazine, he gave to the people that contributed. He inspired through his passion but also his support of the talent he recruited. 

After he moved on from the magazine, he was pivotal in creating what was to be known as the Surface Hotel, a hotel that partnered with brands to create inspiring, cutting edge hospitality in the up an coming LES neighborhood of New York. It later came to be known at The Rivington.

From his expert branding work with Surface, Riley moved into work that was more civic minded. He rolled his tremendous following into social media success for events that promoted such causes as gay rights and sexuality to his current project/ movement UMEWE ( you, me, we) INTO YELLOW- promoting/ teaching optimism in public events throughout the country. His efforts are in part meant to bring awareness to the epidemic of depression our country faces and seeks to show people how to see themselves as part of a larger whole and thus work and think collaboratively rather than so much about I and me. He consulted with Wework early on on this idea. He has partnered with Pantone to create a certain color of yellow that promotes positivism.  The NY Times recently covered a story about Yale’s most popular class being one teaching optimism. Riley has his finger on the pulse. That is why I look to him to hear what he is up to to be inspired, to tell him what I am up to and hear his thoughts. Riley is a good friend and a mentor, one who continues to bubble up ideas a mile a minute that are well ahead of their time. I asked Riley some questions about his story, his path, what inspires him, how he creates and what he looks for in a photographer, writer, and stylist.  His comments formed more of a story of sorts.

In college, Riley was studying fine art and art history but quickly became interested in crisis PR. Along with his interest in art and design, he realized that he was a social activist deeply concerned with equality issues. He focused on learning how to do “INFORMED ART DIRECTION”. He wanted to inspire innovation in innovated ways.  Despite not much exposure to magazines, he became interested in creating a magazine as an art medium (he believed that the message is in the medium and wanted to explore it's boundaries), bringing conceptual art and fine art to this mass medium (even though magazines typically focused on making money). A little like what Andy Warhol did with Interview magazine. He felt that a magazine could be the bridge between art and commerce. Riley discovered a magazine that was tailored to the transvestite community called Surface. He thought the name was appropriate for the message he wanted the magazine to have and re launched it as a fashion, design and automotive magazine. 

Riley wanted the magazine to talk about style, but style as democratic form of social currency, not just fashion that you can just buy. During his time as publisher, editor and creative director/ designer of Surface, Riley focused on making it a tool to inspire people, rather than the money making “aspire” verb, which he felt magazines used to get people to want material things that they might never be able to acquire. Making the magazine a tool (which is something that he still does today) for others to have to create, gain exposure and be heard. That was why he launched the Avant- Gaurdian concept, assigning fashion shoots to young, unknown photographers and getting big fashion houses to lend them clothing for their shoots, taking a huge risk on these unknowns. Riley felt it was important to give exposure to the young artists, to give them a chance to be heard. When he felt that the magazine was becoming too much about aspiration and material desire, rather than inspiring ideas and collaborations, Riley decided to move on to other things. At that time he felt that the future in magazines was going to be about readers creating their own content- and the magazine being a true collective and form of collaborationAt the time, Surface wasn’t ready for these ideas. Soon however blogs and social media emerged which were exactly what Riley had been talking about- reader driven content. Now there are “influencers” rather than editors. These influencers are even curating content that other people are making- more of the collective collaboration idea. 

When I ask Riley what he searches for in artists and writers to hire or work with, he segways into the idea of synchronicity. When he comes across work or others come across his work, and both seem to align then it is a good match for collaboration.  He feels that branding is somewhat over, that no idea should be own-able by one entity, that things are moving towards people with positive intentions collaborating to make an impact. He notes that the only way to solve problems is though collaboration and that optimism is an underlying drive that we are already engaged with. He adds "it isn’t just about aesthetics anymore but purpose and meaning. "

Below is some of Riley's award winning work for Surface Magazine, as well as some of his branding projects with clients such as Lexus, Mini Cooper, European Trade Commission, Levis, Vueve Clicquot and Lafitte Restaurant (a collaboration that I was part of) as well as some of his automative work, product design (sinks) and trend forecasting work. 

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